The Wonder Years
After scoring his first No. 1 hit at the age of 12, he grew up to become one of the great singer-songwriters of the last half-century. Here, to celebrate Stevie Wonder's 68th birthday, are 20 essential songs.
"Fingertips – Part.2" (1963)
"Everybody say yeah!"
Introduced to the world a year earlier as Little Stevie Wonder, child prodigy Stevland Morris wowed the crowd on his first hit single, a two-part, harmonica-happy party song recorded live at a Motown revue in Chicago. "Fingertips" also left its mark on music history: It was the first live single to top the Billboard Hot 100 since a 1952 comedy record and it propelled the album "Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius" to No. 1, making Wonder the youngest artist to achieve that feat. Fun fact: Marvin Gaye played drums.
"For Once in My Life" (1968)
"For once, I can say this is mine, you can't take it / As long as I know I have love I can make it / For once in my life, I have someone who needs me"
A teenage Wonder transformed what had been a slow, contemplative reflection on love and life—co-written in 1966 by Motown's in-house ballad master, Ron Miller—into a jubilant expression of boundless joy. The single peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, blocked out of the top spot by another Motown classic, Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
"My Cherie Amour" (1969)
"My cherie amour, pretty little one that I adore / You're the only one my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine"
You don't have to speak French, cherie, to sing along with the irresistible refrain: "La la la la la la / La la la la la la."
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" (1970)
"Seen a lot of things in this old world / When I touch them they mean nothing, girl / Ooh, baby, here I am…"
Thanks, Mom! After hearing her son fool around with the melody, Lula Hardaway reacted with glee, shouting out the words that would end up becoming the song's title. It was the first single produced by Wonder and the first to feature a trio of exuberant female backup singers, including Syreeta White, the Motown receptionist who co-wrote the No. 3 hit and married Wonder three months after its release.
"Heaven Help Us All" (1970)
"Heaven help the boy who won't reach 21 / Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun"
A Top 10 single at the height of the Vietnam War, this stern but soulful admonition and prayer represented the 20-year-old artist's first foray into social commentary. It's the rare Wonder hit that is now all but forgotten, much like the seemingly bygone genre of protest music. The times they are a-changin'.
"If You Really Love Me" (1971)
"First, the feeling's alright / Then it's gone from sight / So I'm taking out this time to say…"
Wonder's final hit with his first wife, Syreeta Wright, who contributed background vocals and co-wrote all nine songs on her husband's 1971 album "Where I'm Coming From." Peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, the stop-and-go single was also one of the last songs Wonder recorded with Motown's celebrated house band, the Funk Brothers.
"When you believe in things that you don't understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain't the way"
There was nothing unlucky about the Grammy Award-winning R&B single from 1972's breakthrough "Talking Book" album. Inspired by a slap-and-shuffle drumbeat improvised in the studio by guitarist Jeff Beck, "Superstition" became Wonder's first No. 1 hit since "Fingertips."
"You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (1973)
"I feel like this is the beginning /Though I've loved you for a million years"
The follow-up single to "Superstition" wasn't cursed by the sophomore jinx. Written for new wife and collaborator Syreeta Wright, this ode to joy topped the pop charts for one week in May 1973 and earned Wonder's first Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. It's been a wedding day staple ever since.
"Living for the City" (1973)
"To find a job is like a haystack needle / 'Cause where he lives they don't use colored people"
Long before rap became the voice of black America, Stevie Wonder handcrafted a groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece that won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. He played every instrument and sang every note on the one-man tour de force, incorporating street sounds and assorted pedestrian voices to authenticate the urban setting. The full-length 7:22 track on 1972's "Innervisions" album was trimmed to a more radio-friendly 3:41 by omitting the gritty drama that unfolded when a boy from "hard time Mississippi" stepped off a bus in New York City—"skyscrapers and everything"— and was promptly busted, convicted and shut inside a jail cell by a racist guard. "If we don't change, the world will soon be over," Wonder growls at the end. "Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city." over,"
"Higher Ground" (1973)
"I'm so darn glad he let me try it again / 'Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin"
A funky wah-clavinet sets the hip-shaking pace as Wonder sings the praises of reincarnation. Eerily, he was nearly killed in a car accident three months later and spent four days in a coma. "Something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things," he later said, "and to get myself together."
"Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" (1974)
"Everybody needs a change / A chance to check out the new / But you're the only one to see / The changes you take yourself through"
A Latin-infused piano bop kicks off the beat as a playful Stevie chats up a woman by bragging about his world travels ("Paris, Peru, Iraq, Iran") and his "very, very fluent Spanish." But he probably won her over by settling into the groove of his reassuring message. The single peaked at No. 16, snapping Wonder's streak of four straight Top 10 hits since 1972. But he didn't worry 'bout a thing. Three of his next four singles would reach No. 1.
"You Haven't Done Nothin'" (1974)
"But we are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong / 'Cause if you really want to hear our views / You haven't done nothing"
With the Jackson 5 singing doo-da-wop in the background, a politically incensed Wonder took President Richard Nixon to task just as the Watergate scandal was reaching its climax. The single was released on August 7, 1974—the day before Nixon became the first (and, so far, only) U.S. president to resign from office. "You Haven't Done Nothin'" marched triumphantly to No. 1 on November 2, three days before the midterm elections.
"Boogie On Reggae Woman" (1974)
"I like to reggae / But you dance too fast for me / I'd like to make love to you / So you can make me scream"
The second single from the "Fulfillingness' First Finale" album didn't have a boogie bone or reggae lick in its naughty body. But its funky synthesized bass line and Wonder's bluesy harmonica solos seduced Grammy voters as Wonder scored the second of three consecutive awards for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
"Love's in Need of Love Today" (1976)
"Hate's goin' round / Breaking many hearts / Stop it please / Before it's too late"
Playing the role of "your friendly announcer," Wonder pleaded with his worldwide audience to give peace a chance. The soothing, seven-minute track introduced "Songs in the Key of Life," the double album long regarded as the crown jewel in Stevland Morris' lengthy discography. It was nominated for seven Grammy Awards and won four, including Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.
"I Wish" (1976)
"I wish those days could come back once more / Why did those days ever have to go / 'Cause I love them so"
Looking back on when he was "a little nappy-headed boy" in the 1950s, making mischief and lifelong memories. Wonder's fifth No. 1 single earned him the 1976 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
"Sir Duke" (1976)
"Music knows it is and always will / Be one of the things that life just won't quit"
A reigning wunderkind pays tribute to one of his key musical influences, jazz king Duke Ellington, with shout-outs to Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. The brassy "Sir Duke" was the second consecutive No. 1 single from the blockbuster "Songs in the Key of Life" album.
"Isn't She Lovely" (1976)
"Isn't she pretty /Truly the angel's best / Boy, I'm so happy / We have been heaven blessed"
For a carefree 6:33, Wonder revels in the birth of his daughter Aisha and the joy of fatherhood, including the real-life splashes and giggles of his infant daughter's bath time.
"Master Blaster (Jammin') (1980)
"From the park I hear rhythms / Marley's hot on the box / There will be a party / On the corner at the end of the block"
This homage to reggae music and its global ambassador, Bob Marley, peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1980 and reigned over the R&B Singles chart for seven weeks. It was the lead single from Wonder's "Hotter than July" album, whose title was snatched from the song's first line: "Everyone's feeling pretty / It's hotter than July."
"That's What Friends Are For" (1985)
Keep smiling, keep shining / Knowing you can always count on me for sure / That's what friends are for"
The last of Wonder's 10 No. 1 pop singles was a labor of love with pals Elton John, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick. The buddy tribute, originally recorded by Rod Stewart for the 1982 movie "Night Shift," topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in January and February 1986, won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year for writers Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and earned Dionne & Friends, as the all-star quartet was billed, the Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. It also raised more than $3 million for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Now, that's what friends are for.
"For Your Love" (1995)
"For your love, I would do anything / Just to see the smile upon your face"
The easy-listening single from "Conversation Peace," Wonder's first studio album in eight years, got no higher than No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. But Grammy loved it. Wonder copped the annual awards for Best Rhythm & Blues Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
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